History

Pennsylvania and the President

Over the last week, all eyes have been on Pennsylvania. The most likely swing state in the US general election, it’s now the place the Trump campaign are targeting most heavily with their litigation blunderbuss. One place has particularly drawn their ire: Philadelphia. As Trump said, “a lot of bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.”

Maybe so, in Trump’s mind.

In February 1787, the Continental Congress called for a meeting. There were problems with the way the country was run, and they wanted to settle them. They would congregate in May “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

The room where it happened (source: wikipedia.org)

The location? Philadelphia. This meeting would go down in history as the Philadelphia Convention, or the Constitutional Convention, as it’s better known today. This was where the Founding Fathers wrote the constitution.

I want to zoom in on a particular figure at the convention: James Wilson. Born in Scotland, James was one of America’s leading legal minds: he was one of the first supreme court justices. He was also the representative for Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress.

JusticeJamesWilson.jpg
James Wilson (source: wikipedia.org)

Wilson was involved in many parts of drafting the constitution, but he was particularly interested in the argument over the executive, the branch of government held solely by the president today. There was much discussion over whether or not the country should be ruled by a council, rather than a single figure. There’s reason to believe Wilson thought this was a safer and more stable way to run a country: he was later involved in drafting Pennsylvania’s constitution, which gave executive power to a council of twelve, who elected a president from amongst themselves for a 1 year term. Indeed, a council might seem like the best way to run the executive because it puts other people in the room to check the authoritarian desires of one individual.

But Wilson argued that the federal executive should be held by one person. The reasons? First, he felt that if there was a council, the elected members would only stand up for their regional interests, instead of acting on behalf of the whole United States. Second, he thought that the US had only a moderate level of class conflict, and that the democratic system of government would make people more equal than in other countries, giving them the ability to united behind a single figure. (He didn’t account for the bitter partisanship of political parties – which didn’t exist at the time and which the Founding Fathers considered a threat to the system. *Ahem.*)

He believed that, by vesting the executive power in one person, it would give energy and responsibility to the government. The president was expected to be highly visible and accountable, as opposed to the largely unknown members of congress. The president was, in other words, a ceremonial as well as governmental figure right from the start, designed to represent the whole country and all its people, acting as the most visible, accountable, and unifying figure in the system of government.

The potential downsides of vesting all executive power in one individual were to be offset by the benefits of having a figure who worked to represent all Americans and all their views.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the place where the Founding Fathers decided that a president’s words matter; that their conduct matters; that it’s their job to represent every American and every branch of government and take the weight of responsibility and celebrity on their shoulders.

No wonder Trump said bad things happen there.

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